My Father named me Ebelechukwu, which means Mercy of God because he believes the good Lord finally had mercy on my poor mama and granted her the only wish she prayed and begged about for fifteen years.
You see, mama is the last of six wives; following in the family tradition of having only male children, she gave birth to three sets of male twins.
Coming from a big family, friends and family found it rather fascinating as a little kid I knew all my family members, every single last one of them by name. Except of course you exclude new births and those not living in Nigeria.
My brothers, James and John, the oldest of mama’s children, are in secondary school. Timothy and Amos, who come after them, are in junior secondary school, while Phillip and Micah are in primary six; counting eleven male children from the other five wives, plus mama’s six totaled seventeen male children.
Father was a successful tailor. Through this he provided rather well for his large family and employed a lot of young people from the village to work in his sewing shop. He was acclaimed the best tailor in the seven villages which make up our home town. His skills went far across our lands to foreign parts and many came as far as three to four villages away for his craftsmanship.
Being an only child, father promised his parents he would make them grandparents to many children, hence his many wives. A choice that would be considered strange presently, but at that point in time, father’s circumstances were not exactly simple: at least not to him or his parents.
Luckily for him, his parents lived to see his dreams realized and to both their joy and those of their relatives, he wiped away shame from their faces. Mama’s parents both had big families, in comparison to his parents having only him. The larger a family, the more affluent and respected it was considered.
As the only girl, I became the darling of the family from birth. The other wives would quarrel with mama for keeping me too long in her quarters rather than bring me out to all of them to enjoy. I was loved by everyone in the village, including my siblings, especially Brother James, the oldest child from the first wife down to Brother Bismark, the last child from the fifth wife. They all spoilt me rotten.
From a very early age, I was used to getting my way and getting away with almost everything. Number 18 they called me and soon it became my given name in the whole village.
Owing to the age difference between my older brothers and me, especially from the first to the fifth wife, it was inappropriate for me to refer to any of them by their first names without the title ‘Brother’.
Aside from my gift of knowing my people, I have an uncanny knowledge about Umuagu my home town. I know every nook and cranny. The best places to find the best termite hills and best tasting coco pods. I know Ekpe forest like every corner of my home, so much so, occasions have risen when elders versed in the art of herbal healing come to me seeking where to find a particular tree or herb.
I have knowledge of all lineage heads and leaders of all age groups, including all rites and initiations of the land and dance festival rituals in all seven villages. Our three spiritual leaders: Igwe, the revered village head, Isoma, chief priest for the Forest Spirit and Osonnwa, priestess to the great river goddess Oshimili, all refer to me as the Curious One.
Many a time I would sneak out late into the night, while weary heads lay rested to sleep, my mission: witness the disrobing of the deadly masquerade Wolowolo. Legend states the man wearing the mask is possessed by the spirit of the night. Children and women were therefore forbidden to see the mask.
I have seen the mask on several occasions, yet I still walk and talk despite the colorful woes of deformity and insanity described by the elders to befall such a person.
Those who know, like the old ones, say I am one of the real spirits of the land, considering the manner in which they believe I am bonded with the spirit of Umuagu. The biggest mystery they could not fathom, was why a mere child, a girl for that matter be so versed and connected to the spirit of the land.
I was seven years old when the events I’m about to relate took place, and I can honestly tell you these were the best days of my life.
Our village, Umuagu, is the most beautiful place on earth. The only place comparable to it, is the paradise, Miss Ify, our teacher, taught us about during religious studies and showed us in the picture bible.
St Matthias our small Anglican parish, doubled as our elementary school, with hardwood boards dividing one class from the next. Further in the courtyard where the church sat, was another small building which separately housed class 4, 5 and 6.
Despite progress and civilization, ours still remained an unspoiled haven. The big power station, two towns away in Awaka, provided us with uninterrupted supply of electricity, unlike in the big townships, where power failure was the norm. We also had the odd provisions store and two story buildings.
You could leave your door unlocked all day, visit Ekpe Forest where the big farms were located, and return home to find everything intact. Children could play all day long and wherever nightfall met them, they made their bed and were fed. The spirit of unity existed and we were each other’s keeper. Besides, something greater influenced people of these parts.
Upon completion of elementary school, older children like my big brothers, go off to bigger cities with secondary schools, preferably boarding schools. Some go further, returning with big degrees and positions; however, for some reason, they never bring their new wealth back home.
This has been a source of ridicule for my people, eliciting comments such as, “Umuagu, the place where progress refused to visit.” being thrown around. Our people, the elders, would simply smile and reply, “Yet, we know nothing but love and peace.”
Isoma, the priest of the forest Spirit, made it known to the people the land itself had evoked a shield against adulteration of itself. It would never permit adulteration of any nature, hence all things foreign were abhorred and prevented from entry into Umuagu. In return we knew peace and love.
Life for a seven year old in my village was simple; you wake up and run to the river for a bath. If your parents are the sort to overlook laziness, you could wash with a basin in the backyard in a makeshift bathroom. Breakfast was either akara, bean cake made from ground beans mixed with spices and fried, or if you like swallow like I do, the previous night’s soup would accompany the swallow journey. Swallow is anything like pounded yam, fufu or garri, made from boiled yam or cassava and pounded into a dough-like form.
My routine was the same every day; a swim in the river, return home for swallow and off to school. I had just started elementary two.
My teacher, Miss Ify was a petite almost elf like creature with the most beautiful eyes. I used to think she was a mermaid back in primary one because I didn’t understand how she came about having emerald green eyes. I did ask. She said her grandmother told her she came from the Forest god who favored her mother because she was fair to look at.
Everyone was in love with Miss Ify. She told the most wonderful tales—every last one enchanting and enthralling. Often we would gather at her feet because the seats were never enough for us all. What she passed on to us, she learnt from her grandmother versed in folktale and memories long forgotten but reawakened and passed on.
It was during one of these gatherings I heard the most enthralling of tales and glories past of my beautiful paradise on earth.
It was agricultural studies period. We were supposed to dig ridges for our planting beds; it was the season to plant coco-yams. The farmer who promised the headmaster coco-yam stumps had not returned from his trip to the next village, so we were stumped. Rather than waste the hour, Miss decided to tell us a story.
“Now I want absolute quiet, any disturbance and I will be forced to stop, is that understood?” her piercing green eyes twinkled mischievously.
An air of hush fell around us, promising silence. She did this every time she was about to tell us a story, and we all complied; no one wanted to be the reason the entire class missed out on her famous storytelling.
Thinking back now, she rather enjoyed those periods far more than we did—knowing what I know now—she was a guardian and gatekeeper. Those were periods she had the opportunity to observe us without our knowledge. Her storytelling was a tool to observe our reactions and narrow down her search identifying the Chosen One.
Always waiting until there was absolute silence, she began in her gentle musical voice…
“Don’t worry Nnma, he’ll love you! Look at you my friend. You are the fairest girl in the entire land. Any man should count himself lucky to have you and realize you’re a rare gift. The gods would rather keep you for their eyes alone.”
Ndu would not shut up. She rambled on for over thirty minutes, trying desperately to comfort her scared friend. Her concern was the unfairness of Nnma not knowing the joy of wedding bliss.
Nnma’s full name is Nmasinachi, meaning beauty is from God. Not only was she outwardly beautiful, she also possessed a rare inner beauty which is the real beauty from God. Men would spend entire days staring at her and many vowed eternal devotion which inflamed the gods to vindictive action: they put a curse on her. Any man, choosing to wed her, would become blind because they alone deserved the privilege of beholding the purest, most perfect creation they forged.
Since reaching puberty at thirteen, six besotted suitors came calling; until the consequence for taking the fairest bride was revealed. All but one shied away. One named Menkiti—all ploys to destroy me are but in vain. This is the meaning of his name.
Menkiti was an only child to elderly parents, who previously had long given up on children, until the gods blessed his mother much into her golden years. She was past fifty-five when she became heavy with child. Eventually when she gave birth, his old father proudly thumped his chest, looking skyward proclaiming, “All is but in vain, for any who wills my downfall.”
There was no better way to destroy a man than ensure he had no lineage—if this was a curse, it had surely been broken. This was how the old couple became parents, and they along with the entire village raised Menkiti. The boy grew, fearless and curious: always daring where everyone else was fearful. He mastered every activity there was in Umuagu; swimming, hunting, farming and dancing the Jigida dance, his most popular gift by far.
Menkiti was tall and lean but could wrestle a dozen men one after the other and win every single match. He made friends with animals in the forest and had to plead with them to allow him catch one of them for meat, for him and his aged parents, else he would have to hunt and perhaps unnecessarily injure two or three of them, in the process of hunting, while all he really wanted was one. So it was that animals came freely to him and he would plead their forgiveness before slaughter and so he lived taking care of his mother and father.
His hands were blessed and they tilled the land like no other. During harvest time, his bounty was enough to feed half the village. Time came as was the tradition for his initiation to Ololo, the forest spirit, heralding his position as son of the soil, a true native of Umuagu. At this time his father well advanced in age could not fulfill the rites with him as required. Isoma the priest to Ololo made an exception after libations and gifts were presented to the shrine.
Menkiti was allowed to walk the walk with spirits alone, something that had not been done in several decades.
The walk with spirits was dreaded amongst men, grown and well inducted men in the ways and life of the spirit world; how would a mere child of eighteen accomplish this fearsome act alone without guidance?
Menkiti’s mother wept, would her child survive this?
“Oh god of my fathers, why bless me with him only to take him at his prime? She wept, clutching him from the chair where she sat, pleading he not even attempt the walk.
Menkiti smiled gently, going down on his knees to be closer to her. “Nneoma, good mother,” he began, “Menkiti is my name! I will go and I will return to you. When I come home, I will go and marry a wife, who will become your daughter and look after you until your final sleep which approaches soon. I will go mama, so that even it be for just one day, you will know the love of a daughter. I, Menkiti will be glad in my heart, knowing I helped make your last days happier.”
It was getting dark. The entire village looked on anxiously, as Isoma walked him to the edge of Ekpe forest, chewing alligator pepper briskly and spitting it out on the ground, he proclaimed, “Menkiti son of Umuagu. Your feet will be like the fire of this pepper; with speed you will journey and the goodwill of your people go with you.”
The path which led into this side of the vast Ekpe forest was avoided like a plague. Not only was it used for the initiation, it was the part you dared not wander into unless you had the backing of the gods.
Isoma turned and headed back to his shrine to monitor the journey in spirit, while Menkiti, clad in nothing but calico pants and a loose top made from deer skin, began his walk with the spirits.
Menkiti’s destination was an elusive Iroko tree in the middle of Ekpe forest. No one ever knows where she resides. Some say she moves around; within the hollow of this great tree is where Ololo dwells.
It was pitch dark with no diamonds studs on the carpet of the sky. Menkiti could barely see ahead. Nothing but the sounds of night animals is heard; an owl or two hooting. Several times as he forged ahead, he was slapped by leaves hanging from branches he walked into. His feet were also stung by protruding roots from the forest’s growth causing a stumble or two. Menkiti could have been easily scared but he busied himself with the rhythm of his heartbeat and the face of one who besieged his heart for the last three market days.
It was for her and his honor he walked fearlessly into this darkness and he had no doubt he would triumph over all else. His first test soon came. His name was called. It was his mother’s voice pleading for him to return home: she was dying! At that same moment he saw her lying on her mat by the dying embers of fire in the hut. She had the look of death in her eyes. He reached forward to touch her, but the image vanished as quickly as it came. In its place came a strong wave of tiredness which immediately overwhelmed him and a desire to find somewhere to lie down for a while.
His next step forward welcomed the spikes of a young Porcupine about to cross his path. He knew it was a Porcupine because of how its sharp spikes dug into the sole of his feet making him jump back instantly, exclaiming, “O little one, where do you journey so late to in the dark? Where is your mother?”
Instinctively and without care for his own injury, Menkiti picked up the Porcupine which no longer felt threatened and had flattened its spikes. He apologized for stepping on it and placed it on the opposite side, and continued on his way. He was at peace with life and nature.
Thinking about his encounters thus far, Menkiti was yet to encounter the usual horrors he heard threatened initiates on this journey, particularly the horror of the temptress Igolo, the whore of Aluocha. Her beauty intoxicates and her presence induces sleep for the escort, while the young and eager initiate would mate her and be rejected by Ololo. She was a part of the test. The goal is to meet Ololo a virgin, and he in turn would bless and endow the victor with many gifts of which virility and wisdom would be one.
Barely sending the Porcupine on its way, Menkiti walked into something like a wall which knocked him down and left him in a daze. Whatever he walked into was not there a moment ago. Dazed but able to stand, he got up slowly to behold a mighty Iroko which had appeared out of nowhere. His shock and pain immediately changed to a smile and hopefulness.
Right before him was the mighty Iroko, home to the all-knowing ololo. The rumors did not do justice to this mighty being. She was huge; almost the dimension of the huge village wrestling square. She stood regal. Signs of her age gently featured in varying areas of her form. Her face bore marks of wisdom and fatigue but still the lushness of her leaves and formidable branches which looked like huge trunks of smaller trees, was all the proof needed to know this was one being not to underestimate.
Confused and not sure what next to do, Menkiti stepped back and bowed as he would when greeting his own mother and spoke with a loud voice.
“Great mother I salute you. It is I Menkiti your son. Pardon me mama for bumping into you, my eyes though accustomed to the dark did not see you appear.”
The night became still, no sound could be heard except Iroko’s acknowledgement as she shook her branches in acceptance of his greetings.
Menkiti stared at the ground and would not dare look at her face. A strong wind blew and two huge trunk-like branches flapped as if opening their arms, and then he heard a groan. The very root of her trunk split open revealing an opening. Mesmerized but holding his peace, Menkiti stepped back and watched. She groaned a second time and her branches reached forward towards him, stretched out on either side of him, gently nudging him forward.
He needed no further invitation before he bowed and went into the trunk. A light far ahead illuminated the depth within the Iroko. Coming in from darkness, the light blinded him, but he moved forward squinting. It took several steps further inside before his eyes grew accustomed to the light and he was able to take in his surroundings. He was able to see around and ahead, in contrast to darkness of the forest.
He found himself inside a front room similar to that found in compounds in the village, the Obi, where the head of household sat with his guests. There were markings on the walls which he knew represented the history of his people. The wall beside this had stripes and colors of varying hues, which represented the spirit of an initiate and what gifts he was given.
As he took in his surroundings, he wondered what would happen next. He stood waiting. It did to not take long before the weight of his journey bore down on him. His body ached and longed for the comfort of his mat. His eye lids became heavy and began to close, but he fought against the sleep. He was glad he at least made it to his destination. He knew making it into the bowels of the great one was proof Ololo favored him and surely he would be blessed.
He did not have to wait much longer before a voice spoke to him. It sounded familiar and yet so strange. It welcomed him and asked him to strip naked.
As he stood naked, the bowels of the great one became foggy. It was as misty as an early harmattan morning but without the cold temperature. As he marveled about the mist, a hand was placed on his shoulder from behind. Slightly startled, he gasped but stood his ground.
“Look up child, behold your bride!” the voice said.
Still shaken, Menkiti looked up hesitantly. Right there before him, was Nnma, the same woman he saw and his heart longed for over the last three market days.
Nnma smiled and walked closer to him, handing him his garments one after the other. He could not take his eyes off her. Spellbound he accepted his cloths and put them back on, after which she knelt before him and kissed his feet. Next, she got up and embraced him placing her head on his chest briefly, as his big arms encircled her waist and rested on her bottom.
Just as she appeared, Nnma soon disappeared, leaving him clutching thin air, before mother Iroko groaned again. Menkiti staggered and became dizzy. Slowly opening his eyes, he found himself back in the forest. Dawn had broken and the early birds had already begun to chirp and sing, clutched within his hand was a lock of hair. He wondered where it came from and what it was doing in his hand. Why was he in the forest? Then he began to remember, the journey, the porcupine, being within the bowels of the great mother Iroko and Nnma…it must be a lock of her hair.
The entire village gathered at the edge of the forest awaiting his return. Many were not sure what gifts he would bring, if any. They wondered if he saw Ololo, regardless of their thoughts they came to welcome him home.
Some children were the first to set eyes on him and they ran out to him screaming his name. He felt loved and important at that moment. When he got to where the crowd gathered, everyone, men and women embraced him, some shook his hand in congratulation even though they were not sure he passed the tests until they saw Isoma’s smiling face. Then they knew he was successful. Isoma gave him a knowing smile and welcomed him back, declaring he was free to go seek his bride.
It had already been revealed, and was common knowledge that the next man to pass the initiation test would marry Nnma.
Ndu was the first to see Menkiti approaching the village square. Everyone knew who the new initiate would be, and Ndu was hopeful for Nnma’s sake that Menkiti would triumph and marry her good friend. If indeed he returned unsuccessful, Nnma would end up serving at the Osimiri shrine for the rest of her life. At eighteen she was already considered an old maid. Ndu herself was already a mother of two, after a brave hunter took her as bride only three years ago at the age of fifteen. She was lucky her husband was not from these parts else he would have to walk the dreaded walk.
Menkiti came alone. With him was the lock of hair tied to the end of his loin cloth and a big keg of palm wine, bearing heavily on his shoulders for his new in-laws. He was welcomed by the village council and soon led to the Obi of Nnma’s father, Adindu.
Owing to the last five failed wine carrying ceremonies which was a disgrace to the family, there was to be no fanfare this time. Adorned in her mother’s best wrapper and beads, Nnma was led out, accompanied by her mother, sisters and Ndu. She was as fair as the sun itself, with hair the color of midnight and eyes dark brown like the earth in the rainy season. Nnma’s beauty was not to be contested. Everyone present held their breath as she walked in and knelt before Menkiti, whose back was turned away according to tradition.
“Turn around honored one, behold your bride.” Adindu said hesitantly with slight apprehension. The norm had been that once the fate of Nnma’s suitors was revealed about becoming blind immediately after marriage, they instantly abandoned the rest of the ceremony. Only this time was different.
Menkiti when told simply laughed and said, “Does one love with the eyes?”
Menkiti turned around to look at his bride. Her face was a vision beyond description. She was sunlight and the perfect sunset all together. He took her hands and clasped within it the lock of hair he was given and whispered, “Give this to your mother she’ll know what to do with it.”
Taking her hands he pulled her to her feet, faced his new in-laws and thanked them.
“My people and I will return in two market weeks to honor our tradition, but for now I’ll take my wife home.”
Everyone cheered. Today was indeed a wonderful day. There was finally cause for jubilation and celebration. As they walked pass her mother, Nnma slipped the lock of hair into her hands and she smiled a knowing smile, thanking the gods for their wisdom and gifts. Menkiti took his new bride home, amidst much celebration and thanksgiving.
Five market weeks later, his mother finally slept peacefully, after experiencing the loving devotion of a daughter. A year later just before the New Year came in, his father also slept.
“No, no! Wait a minute miss, what sort of story is this? Why did Menkiti not go blind? What was the significance of the lock of hair? Did these things even happen here in Umuagu or did you just make up the entire story?”
I could not help but ask—she didn’t have the right to tell such a beautiful story with a rubbish ending!
Miss laughed and cooed, “Patience Ebele, patience! Every word is as told to my great grandmother who was also named Nnma, who later told my grandmother who told me. They say back then the gods would visit villages disguised as men. One day the goddess Oshimili came disguised, calling on Uloaku, Nnma’s mother. Uloaku being from a bloodline of priestesses to the great goddess, immediately knew who was in her presence.
Oshimili requested some yam pottage which was cooked and she ate to her fill.
“Now what do you want in return for your kindness?” she asked Uloaku.
Uloaku could have asked for anything but all she requested was a lock of Osimili’s hair. Oshimili became angry because she realized Uloaku recognized her based on her request. The Goddess had no choice but honor her words. With much anger and reluctance she gave a lock of her hair, which Uloaku kept for years, knowing its healing powers.
Now, regarding Menkiti, while he was in the bowels of the great mother Iroko, Ololo was impressed with his love and respect for nature, and therefore appeared to Uloaku and told her to give the lock of hair to the spirit of her daughter to present to Menkiti. After passing the test and finding himself back in the forest, Menkiti smelt the lock of hair, believing it belonged to his Nnma and caressed his face with it. It was from that moment onwards he became protected from the curse.
Ever since the occurrence of giving a lock of her hair, legend says the goddess returns every other decade to live amongst the people of Umuagu. It is rumored in high places she is back in Umuagu and can be identified by the missing hair by the nape of her neck.
Amongst her identifying traits is wisdom: she is wise beyond her years and knows everything there is to know about the village of Umuagu. She will be the source of many great things in Umuagu, but in her early years, she will be hidden in plain sight under the protection of her divine will and powers, until she’s ready to bring the rest of the world into the knowledge of her physical presence in Umuagu. Then the place ridiculed as a place progress refused to visit, will be visited by thousands and finally be revered as the physical home of Oshimili the great.”
As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on me and slowly my hands shot to the back of my neck where a bald patch was quite evident.
My name is Ebelechukwu, named so because the Almighty finally had mercy and granted my mother’s wish. Seventeen brothers, five mothers, mama and father always fussed over me. My whole life has been controlled one way or the other, only to discover my destiny through my elementary school teacher.
My name is Ebelechukwu, the goddess Oshimili.